This was the first massive attack the US ever suffered on its mainland: the Trade Center in New York! The Pentagon! If passengers hadn’t overpowered the hijackers on a fourth plane, they might have struck the White House!
The anguish of all who lost loved ones is there in the ‘never forget’ banners. Yet a great nation was also humbled, outraged as never before.
Then US President George W. Bush said: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The staggered giant compiled its intelligence. It learned how its enemies had slipped through its defences, prepared on America’s own soil! and from abroad.
Men of several nationalities had been recruited and then trained in secret bases in Afghanistan, by the Al Qaeda organisation. Its chief and his lieutenants were sheltered by the Taliban — also followers of Islamist extremism.
The US declared open war on Al Qaeda, to defend freedom, its leader said. It poured military resources into Afghanistan in fury. But international terrorism eluded the Americans’ traditional approach. Homeland Security allowed no repeat of 9/11 in the US.
But Jemaah Islamiah, close to Al Qaeda, was able to strike on the other side of the world, in Bali, claiming more than 180 lives, many of them tourists, as the War Against Terror entered its second year.
President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, saying Al Qaeda needed to be neutralised here too, removing Saddam Hussein and his “weapons of mass destruction”, delivering regime change and democracy.
While at home and in the theatres of war Al Qaeda found America’s armour firmly on, it struck in Europe. Spain in March 2004. Bombs in Madrid train stations killed nearly 200, wounding more than twice that.
July 2005: 52 London transport users die in bomb blasts — the work of four homegrown Islamist suicide bombers. 700 are wounded.
India, Bombay in 2008: Islamists kill 174 people. The wars go on but the world feels no safer.
Ten years of brutal cat and mouse end as US special forces finally catch Bin Laden, and kill him, in May 2011, in Pakistan.
CIA drones have killed more than a thousand Al Qaeda fighters. But though Bin Laden is gone, the network’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri remains active. The fight for ‘safety’ goes on.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: “You know, we’re talking about at this stage of the game, I would say, somewhere around 10 or 20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM (Al Qaeda in Maghreb) in North Africa. Those are, if we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat Al Qaeda.”